Images and U.S. Copyright Law

images and copywright law

We live in a visual age where using images in your marketing efforts is essential, but are you using them legally according to U.S. copyright law?

While some might be flattered you chose to use their photo or image, most won’t feel that way. Like all other creative works, U.S. copyright law protects photos and images. Most people won’t take the time to read through copyright law, and many who do look at it may still be a bit confused about exactly what it says.

While this is by no means an authoritative legal analysis, we hope reading this helps you better understand what U.S. copyright law says you can and can’t do with photos and images.

You can find and publish legal images in a number of ways:

  • Take your own photos
  • Use public domain images
  • Properly attribute creative commons works
  • Take advantage of the concept of “Fair Use”
  • Purchase licensed stock photos

Take your own photos

Since they’ll be completely original, your readers won’t be able to see them anywhere else, which isn’t the case with public domain or stock photos.

If the photo you’re using has an identifiable person (that is, you can clearly see who they are) and the image is being used for an explicitly commercial purpose (like a landing page or an advertisement), you may not have the right to use their image unless the subject of the photograph signed a model release. The American Society of Media Photographers has a simple one you can use.

Public Domain

Images in the public domain have been unshackled from copyright law. Nobody owns them. So you can publish them, change them, or do anything you want with them. There are some instances where the creator of an image chooses to release it into the public domain. But the most common sources of public domain images are old images (the copyright has expired) and images produced by the government.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons’ license makes it possible for photographers to release their photos to the public, while still retaining some control over how they’re used. All licenses fall into two broad categories: those that allow the photos to be used for commercial use and those that don’t. How can you tell which image has which license? The restrictions of the Creative Commons license are usually published right alongside the image online.

Finding Images with Google

When doing a Google image search, filter your results to find images you have permission to use. To do this, use an Advanced Search filter called “usage rights” that lets you know when you can use, share, or modify something you find online.

When you do a search click on “Search Tools” and then “Usage rights” that lets you know when you can use, share, or modify something you find online. You’ll see four categories. To find the images that give you the most freedom, click on either “Labeled for reuse” or “Labeled for reuse with modification.”

Google search and copyright law

Labeled for reuse means you can use the image for your commercial purposes “as-is” – no modifications are allowed. To be sure, you should still look at the license. Some images require you to give written credit to the creator.

Labeled for reuse with modification means you can modify the image any way you’d like.

Before reusing content, make sure that its license is legitimate and check the exact terms of reuse. For example, the license might require that you give credit to the image creator when you use the image. Google can’t tell if the license label is legitimate and they don’t know if the content is lawfully licensed. If you come across content in Google search results with the wrong usage rights, you can alert them in the Google Search Forum.

In addition to doing a Google search for photos and images, there are a number of free stock photo websites you can look at too.

There’s also something in copyright law called “fair use”. It allows you use images that are protected by copyright under certain circumstances. A good explanation can be read here.

Stock Photos

Stock photos are licensed out to anyone who is willing to pay their licensing fee. Buying a license gives you the right to use the photo only as described in the licensing agreement. The main advantage of stock photo sites is the large number of pictures they offer. Some of the most popular stock photos sites include Shutterstock, iStock, and Adobe Stock.

Copyright law can be intimidating and confusing.  Playing by the rules does make finding images or photos you can use more time consuming. But it’s still less of a hassle than being on the wrong end of a law suit.

Everything’s easy when you know how. Once you find your favorite sources for legally compliant images, you’ll be able to find the perfect photos for your blog posts, website or landing pages more easily.

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